We live in strange times. Among conservative pundits and politicos alike, a bizarre quandry has developed. It seems impossible to find the Achilles heel of Obama foreign policy. Some days it seems the administration is too weak, apologetic, and reminiscent of the days when nearly all liberals could be labelled UN lapdogs who would rather cede American sovereignty than fight for American interests. Other days, however, he seems brash, brazen, and perhaps even too hawkish, like George W. Bush without moral restraint. However, as The Economist pointed out on November 19th when discussing the recent decision to pigeonhole the Keystone XL pipeline with Canada, “Barack Obama seems to have found a way to annoy everyone.” This seemingly simplistic critique may be the first chink in the armor to betray the smoke-and-mirrors farce of the Obama Foreign Policy.
In practical terms, foreign policy has always had a sacred role in American affairs. Every President, save F.D. Roosevelt, has treated domestic policy in a very different way than foreign relations. Domestic policy, by its internal nature, is something of a family feud. The American Family attempts, through elections and input, to solve its dinner table issues. However foreign policy is unifying; foreign policy is how we define ourselves to the rest of the world. No matter how bitter domestic politics can get, the vast majority of Americans put on a united front and work for American interests abroad. Domestic policy is transient. But foreign policy is nearly absolute. It is built upon, revered, and treated much like common law. While the legislation governing our nation changes like central banks have been built, abandoned, and rebuilt; the Monroe Doctrine, the Roosevelt Corollary, the Kennedy Doctrine, and even the Bush Doctrine remain integral components to foreign relations.
As mentioned before, F.D. Roosevelt may be the exception to this rule. He governed domestic policy during the last depression with the same force, strength, and absolutism as he did prosecuting the Axis nations in the Second World War. While Mr. Roosevelt used the force of America and the authority of the presidency—those powers created and used for foreign policy—to govern all American policy, B.H.O. is no F.D.R. Mr. Obama is a skilled legislator. As a lawyer, a state senator, and the Junior U.S. Senator from Illinois, the politics of persuasion, charm, charisma, and compromise carried him during his meteoric ascendency to the Oval Office. However, legislators only govern as a collective. America was warned that experience matters, but hope prevailed and change was unleashed.
Since leaving the Senate, Mr. Obama has made his feelings of superiority over congress blatantly obvious. He acts as monarch in chief: leaving the trivial, messy, mundane politics of the congress to its own devices and chooses to remain aloof in the pivotal affairs of his own nation, albeit in turmoil. Likewise, when he does deign to grace legislators with his presence, it seems cold, paternalizing and condescending. This is often taken as his transition from being a legislator to an executive. However, this analysis doesn’t mesh.
Barack Obama is the opposite of his idol Franklin Roosevelt. While Mr. Roosevelt governed public policy with the same moral authority of a Commander-in-Chief, Obama remains clearly a politician. The politics of cockiness now govern America’s image in the world. When Obama left the chumminess of the Senate, he seemed to fancy himself joined to a new political body—the World. He acts as a majority leader of the World Senate, not as leader of the free world. He acts with the maneuvering of a skilled poker player using American National Interests as chips, and both military and economic power as trump cards. With each new report or event, he acts as though a new card has been dealt, and calculates his next move. With Pakistan, he seems to call every turn of events a bluff, choosing instead to go all in as though their leaders are nothing more than Senators threatening a vote, not a sovereign nation. President Reagan dared a nuclear power to tear down a wall, calling a generation to the cause of liberty. Obama dares a nuclear power to challenge brazen disrespect of national sovereignty, acting as a bully shoving an underclassman who dares complain that his lunch money was stolen. And just like any skilled bully, he sweetens up when questioned and promises to ensure it never happens again (until next time).
Never leaving the careful politics which brought him to power, he uses the greatness and glory of America much as a legislator treats his district. He seeks to provide benefits as best he can mathematically, but only so far as it takes to make a deal or so far as he has to toe the party line. This isn’t about popularity as most strategists and pundits think. The politics of Obama’s foreign policy is not based on approval ratings, or poll numbers: it is unadulterated lunchroom popularity.
However, he is the only politician among a world of rulers. He lives outside of his element. He laughs and persuades. He apologizes and backslaps. All of this, however, he does with no moral conviction or intestinal fortitude. He appears to be equal parts slick and savvy, much like the loathsome and pushy dealers of any automobile. But he remains a salesman in a league of warriors. Would China ever wheel and deal her own national interests (read: Yuan) simply to cut a deal on a pet project? Would Russia alienate an ally and supplier of oil and economic development (read: Iran) simply to be more popular with the NATO club? The answer to both are patently no. If Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy is defined by saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” perhaps the Obama doctrine could be taken straight from Chicago backroom poker games as “Speak loudly and don’t get called in a bluff.”
Pax Americana is more than a poker game, and superpowers are built on blood and maintained through strength, not charisma. Bush, Reagan, Roosevelt, or Clinton: wildly different, but all tapping into a well of moral conviction which carried a young nation toward a global empire of trust and relevance. The last great figure to be a salesman on the world stage, relying solely on his personal prowess to secure global goals, was Neville Chamberlain. Let there be peace for our time.
Troy D. Ard // Colorado State University at Pueblo // @Troy_Ard